Oh, Ceylan. It must be such a tremendous hardwork to come up with a 3-hour and 16-minute epic and all I can heave is a nonchalant sigh. I liked Once Upon in Anatolia, adored its stark, contemplative cinematography and even admired its socio-political cynicism extracted from the police procedural genre, but his protraction is becoming wearisome. His follow-up Winter Sleep makes his previous work look far superior and feel like its played twice the playback speed. This one is a dialogue-heavy, deeply ponderous and archly meandering chambre piece that’s also overlong, over-written and over-satisfied of itself. No prizes in guessing who Ceylan is trying to emulate (apparently Chekhov), but judging on the title alone, it’s obvious touchstone is Ingmar Bergman, he of the magnificently wordy, existential Scandinavian cinema who transforms conversational arias into devastating masterpieces.
There are moments when Winter Sleep becomes suitably philosophical and argumentative, as an ex-actor-turned-landlord of the steepes Aydin is locked in long, fraught, increasingly heated verbal battles with his young, inconsolable wife Nihal and her opinionated sister Necla. These characters speechify in the dimly lit rooms in their cave-like abode, resulting in scenes reminiscent of Bergman’s Scenes of a Marriage, but whereas Bergman locates his characters within a confined space with undeniably rigorous purpose, Ceylan overstuffs his dialogues that’s beyond discipline and bordering on self-congratulatory wankery while he does a conventional shot-reverse-shot routine. His art is really only beautiful in open spaces and vast panoramas. In a room, it’s stiflingly banal.
It tries hard to say IMPORTANT things about marriage, morality, altruism and the forces of evil in between broken car windows, bickering with tenants, trips in the snow, encounters with wild horses and quoting Shakespeare. Wedged somewhere in its funereal pace is a turgid morality drama about culpability and repentance, wherein a child who deliberately breaks a car window is forced by the paterfamilias to seek apology, seems like a slight nod towards the Asghar Farhadi school of filmmaking, where tiny misunderstandings fuel a bitter study of humanity’s inability to communicate. But Winter Sleep is no A Separation, and Ceylan struggles to find a powerful punch somewhere in this narrative strand. Instead his dialogue meanders and his characters become increasingly self-contradictory (wife Nihal pours her ennui-ridden heart out as husband Aydin grins like self-possessed, grey-haired Cheshire cat). None of these characters end up worth sympathising to, no less than the central protagonist Aydin (played to stolid self-importance by Haluk Bilginer), who emerges not as a man in a midlife crisis but an arrogant, pseudo-intellectual egomaniac. And Ceylan know this, as he injects a last-minute clarion call for sympathy with a clichéd voice-over narration by Aydin himself, a reversal of style (music, rhythm and all) that’s too contrived to beg for empathy.